Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A vacation from our vacation. We cooked our last Knorr Side, broccoli cheddar rice, on the side of the road at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and U.S. 52. Fourty-eight days and 584 miles after beginning our trek, we'd managed to land at this junction within two hours of our desired rendezvous time. Proud of ourselves for executing our plans so flawlessly, we sat in the shade refusing offers to hitch into town. We had our own, special hitch on the way. And lo, just as anticipated, a shiny black Toyota, filled to the brim and piloted by two smiling, sunglassed figures, pulled up the dusty gravel drive right on time. Lots of hugging ensued. For a brief moment, our on-trail lives and off-trail lives converged. We took pictures, walked a few yards of the trail. Then we dashed for the air conditioning. (For those of you born after 1987: why is it that whenever I try to be pithy in a blog post I sound like I'm writing a xanga entry about how much I love the lineup on TGIF?)

Anywho. The Goodriches were kind enough to meet us near Bland, VA (real name, I promise) and whisk us away to Duck, NC where Caroline Goodrich and Andrew Ornee are getting married (if either of you are reading this post after the wedding, congrats guys!). We're honored to be here to share in the celebration and grateful to have a beach vacation within our mountain vacation. I guess it's kinda like this.

We'll be spending days 49-55 visiting, eating chocolate frogs and fizzing whizzbees (thanks Mom and Dani), and washing everything we own. Looking forward to a rejuvenating respite. Despite the change of scenery and the easier terrain, many hikers suffer from the "Virginia blues" during this portion of the trail. We're feeling lucky to have 100+ miles of the state under our belts and a chance to refocus after this week off. When we return, we'll be carrying less weight (bye-bye winter gear) and hopefully rejoining some of our friends who we'd gotten ahead of.

By far the biggest highlight of the past week was our day and a half in the Grayson Highlands. If you live in south-central Virginia and haven't had the chance to visit this state park, please add it to your "must list." Imagine you're on the set of The Sound
of Music, add in a few dozen feral ponies and you'll have it.

Here's what we've done since Damascus:

Day 41
Damascus, VA to Lost Mountain Shelter (15.8 miles)

Sure feels good to be back on the trail. We love our off days but start to get antsy after too long. Ate some vegan jerky with lunch today that was absolutely delicious--really hit the spot.

Day 42
Lost Mountain Shelter to Thomas Knob Shelter (12.2 miles)

Dramatic weather! Last night at Lost Mountain was particularly serene and this morning was no different. As we set off to climb White Top and Mt. Rodgers, we were backed by birds chirping beneath blue skies. Soon, however, the sky began to turn hazy, then gray. Exasperated, we tried to hurry to the shelter, but it was out of reach. Buckets of water and tiny bits of hail drenched us to the bone. Within minutes the trail became a river. Mountain weather, you are fickle! Post-storm, however, the landscape opened up into something akin to the Swiss Alps. A stranger shouted, "Dudes! There's like 10 wild ponies over here!," a
lerting us to the presence of a great photo op. We spent the night (and weathered another storm) safe under the tin roof of Thomas Knob Shelter with some snoring firemen and some loquacious day-hikers. Oh, and in case you're keeping tabs or planning a hike yourself, Thomas Knob is up there in the Top 5 shelters with amazing views.
Day 43
Thomas Knob Shelter to Hurricane Mountain Shelter (16 miles)

A perfect day. The trail was even-tempered and well-graded. The skies were forgiving (save a bit off noontime heat), and the natural world was full of light. We ran into our second group of ponies right off the bat, and they were eager to interact with us. One licked, then nipped Lara's leg, but it was all in good fun. We found a glorious spot for lunch--a single, shady tree amidst miles of mountain grasslands near the 500-mile mark. One of our favorite days yet.

Day 44
Hurricane Mountain Shelter to Partnership Shelter (19.7 miles)

After an uneventful 19.7 mile hike we arrived at Partnership Shelter, adjacent to the Mount Rogers Recreation Area headquarters. Called "the Taj" by thru-hikers, this shelter has a built in shower and acts as nearby phone from which you can order pizza. We dug the place, but weren't fans of how crowded it was.

Day 45
Partnership Shelter to Davis Path Campsite (14.3 miles)

After 11 miles in the morning, we decided to stop in at "The Barn" restaurant for lunch near Atkins, VA where the trail crosses I-81. Our waitress, Carol, revealed at the end of our meal that she was a three-time thru-hiker and encouraged us to stay and wait out the oncoming thunderstorm. We took our sweet time, resupplying at the nearby Exxon station, drinking coffee and chatting with other hikers. Hours passed, but no rain fell. Sure enough, though, just as we decided to take a chance and leave, ominously dark clouds rolled in. We turned right back around, sat back down in the restaurant and waited out the downpour. Made it to camp during a window long enough to set up our tent and stay dry.

Day 46
Davis Path Campsite to Knot Maul Branch Shelter (11.3 miles)

This day may go down as one of our hardest, even though it was technically on the easy end. We had planned an 11.3 mile day--kids' stuff compared to what we've done by now. Unfortunately, we underestimated our reliance on our morning coffee and were feeling sluggish without it. (Zack felt doubly lethargic after getting a worrisome bug bite and deciding to take a Benadryl at 9:00 in the morning.) Our short days always seem to feel the longest. Maybe it was just the week catching up with us, but we crashed as soon as we arrived in camp. The day was not without enjoyment, however. An especially outgoing bunny visited us several times as we ate dinner. It was obvious he'd been fed by other hikers. Mixed feelings about that, but happy to have a cute critter around nonetheless.

Day 47
Knot Maul Branch Shelter to Jenkins Shelter (19 miles)

Climbed a big'un to the top of Chestnut Knob this morning, where we had lunch in an
old fire warden's cabin. An afternoon that looked tame on the elevation map turned out to be nothing close to easy, and we wiggled our way over rocks and gnarly roots. Thankful to have have a hiking partner on these hot Virginia days. Encouragement is where it's at.

Day 48
Jenkins Shelter to U.S. 21/52 (11.7 miles)

Left camp at 7:00 this morning and flew to our meet-up spot. Dinner in Chapel Hill--delicious pizza and salad. Craig and Andie G. even let me drive (an honest thrill after 7 weeks of traveling no faster than 3.5 miles an hour). Looking forward to a week's worth of sleeping in a real bed.

Love you guys,
Zack (and Lara)

PS - We finally added little pictures to the previous blog post, so check them out! (Also, Lara wants you to know it's OK if you don't get the "xanga" reference. She doesn't either.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

We walked to Virginia! Yesterday morning we crossed the Tennessee-Virginia border and have made our way to Damascus, "the friendliest town on the trail."
It's been quite a week since Asheville, with many ups-and-downs, figurative and literal. We did two 22+ mile days, and we trudged through rain and cold, but we are very grateful for the last two days of sunshine, and for a full "zero" today in Damascus.

Here's what we've been up to:

Day 32
Erwin, TN to Curley Maple Shelter (4.2 miles)
After a great time in Asheville, we headed back to the trail. As we drove, heavy gray clouds moved in, and we learned that the forecast showed five days of rain ahead of us. We decided to press on nevertheless, and had a pleasant and short hike to a shelter just outside of Erwin. Just after we arrived, the downpour started and didn't let up all night. We were happy there was room in the shelter, and that our good friends, Avo and H.I.P., had also braved the elements.

Day 33
Curley Maple Shelter to Clyde Smith Shelter (22 miles)

Our longest day yet (until later in the week)! Phew. The weather was not fun (to put it nicely). We trudged through pouring rain and slogged up slippery slopes, but we made it the whole 22 miles. Once we got to the shelter, a heavy fog moved in, and the night turned cold, but thankfully we were able to stay warm and relatively dry in the shelter.

Day 34
Clyde Smith Shelter to Overmountain Shelter (14.4 miles)

Oh, the wind and the rain! We climbed Roan Mountain, one of the highest points on the A.T. and the coldest part of the trail in the South, year-round. (We were very thankful this week to have our cold weather gear with us; some of our friends had already sent theirs home, thinking that the multiple 80-degree days we had had last week meant that the warmth was here to stay...not so fast...) We also climbed over many balds, from which the guidebook tells us there are many great views, but we were lost in a cloud of white and couldn't see anything. We made it to Overmountain Shelter (an enormous, old barn converted into a shelter in 1986) for another cold, drafty night.

Day 35
Overmountain Shelter to Mountaineer Shelter (18 miles)

And the rain kept coming! Today was the day of "mud-skating." The trail was muddy the whole way, and almost all of our clothes were soaked from the previous days of rain. I was so eager to get to the shelter by the end of the day, that we pretty much ran there for the last hour. Staying warmtook some effort, but we were able to salvage one pair of dry-ish items each and get some sleep.

Day 36
Mountaineer Shelter to Dennis Cove [Kincora Hostel] (15.6 miles)
The thought of dry clothes must have motivated us down the mountain today, because we made it to Kincora Hostel fast. Though it wasn't actually raining, the trail was still muddy, and the air was still cold. We arrived at Kincora, a unique, low-key hostel with two bunk-rooms and a kitchen, supported by "a suggested donation of $4 per hiker." We washed our clothes and dried off; it was so nice to be in a heated room! And then...they brought us free food! (A hiker's best friend is free food.) They had tons of leftovers from the weekend, when they hosted an annual event called Hard Core, where volunteers meet at Kincora and go out and do trail work along the A.T. They said the food "had to go," so we worked hard at that task for a while (salad, pasta, ice cream, soup - yum!).

Day 37
Dennis Cove [Kincora Hostel] to Vandeventer Shelter (17.5 miles)

After a big and luxurious breakfast of fresh fruit and cereal, we headed back out into the woods. First thing, we walked by Laurel Falls, a beautiful and enormous waterfall. It felt great to be hiking in weather that was not cold or rainy. The sun even made an appearance! We arrived at Vandeventer Shelter in time for dinner and a nice chat with some older thru-hikers. Given the favorable weather conditions, we were even able to set up the tent for the first time in a week!

Day 38
Vandeventer Shelter to Abington Gap Shelter (22.7 miles)

Our longest day yet (for real this time)! We woke up early to watch the sunrise from Vandeventer Shelter. We were above the clouds, so even though it wasn't clear enough to see the sun actually rise, we did get some great views. We headed out early, as we had a long day ahead of us. One thing we have learned on the A.T. is that "flat" terrain is never flat. Indeed, our "flat" day turned out to have lots of hills and climbs, but we did it, and the day was gorgeous. It makes such a difference to hike in nice weather.

Day 39
Abingdon Gap Shelter to Damascus, VA (10.2 miles)

Yesterday morning, we woke up early and headed out of camp, eager to get to town. We made great time, and crossed the state-line around 10:00am. Such a great feeling to know that we've walked from Georgia - through North Carolina and Tennessee - to Virginia! At this point we're almost a quarter of the way done with the trail (we hit the 500-mile mark next week).

Day 40
Damascus, VA (ZERO miles)

Today we plan on relaxing and relaxing. After receiving an awesome mail drop from home and from Zack's Colby friends, Colin and Esther, we stuffed ourselves yesterday with sweet treats. (In fact, we were so full that we had no room for dinner - crazy talk!) Today we're hoping to do less gorging, but still more eating (of the fruit and vegetable variety this time). We're sitting at Mojoe's Trailside Coffeehouse eating breakfast and sipping coffee, and we've gotten a few recommendations for good veggie burgers in town, so that's where you can find us.

We'll be in Damascus until tomorrow morning, and in the meantime, we're looking forward to giving our legs the break they deserve.

Lara (and Zack)

Friday, May 13, 2011

We're in Asheville, NC! Home of the Biltmore estate, the best beer in the country (it's official--sorry Portland) and, most importantly, the Plaehn Family! Helen, Tim, Martha, Patrick, Flannery, and Henry have been kind enough to welcome our smelly selves into their abode for a shower, laundry and a good night's sleep. We like 'em! We also like Asheville, from the very little we've seen. About half the people here look like thru-hikers anyways, so the last few hours have been an easy transition for us. We were even able to do our resupply at a natural foods store. High fives for whole grain, organic toaster pastries and vegetarian chicken noodle soup!

A blogs-worth of stuff has happened to us lately. Today happens to be our one month "hike-a-versary!" Hard to believe we've already been on the trail for 31 days. Since the last post we crossed the 300 mile mark, located near a bald called--no joke--Big Butt. We also weathered a double thunderstorm in our tent, summitted Big Bald and hiked our first 21-mile day.

Here's the day by day:

Day 26
Zero in Hot Springs, NC (0 miles-yes!)

Pretty strange to take a full day off, but our bodies definitely appreciated the rest. Hot Springs, and the Sunnybank Inn in particular, was the perfect place to kick back. After a lazy morning and a big breakfast, we decided to enter into an untold realm of relaxation by taking a dip in the mineral pools at the Hot Springs Spa. All told, the "pools" were just jacuzzi tubs with the warm spring water pumped in. The view of the French Broad River was great, however, and the atmosphere was very peaceful. After an hour of soaking we felt pretty darn soothed, if not straight up loopy. Topped off the day with a big ice cream cone and dinner with friends.

Day 27
Hot Springs, NC to Spring Mountain Shelter (11 miles)

Excellent vegetarian breakfast prepared by Elmer and the staff at Sunnybank to send us on our way: waffles, granola, strawberries, cantaloupe, coffee, soy milk, jams, syrup, etc. One more stop at the library before leaving town. Short, but uphill day today to make sure our legs could readjust after zeroing.

Day 28
Spring Mountain Shelter to Jerry Cabin (15 miles)

Hard day today, both physically and emotionally. Our mileage was moderate to hard, 15 miles, but the grade was straight up for a large portion of the morning and afternoon. Something about the way the incline and the heat/humidity combined had us dragging our leaden feet. Hoping for a flat, easy 5 miles to end the day, but--surprise!--encountered a long stretch of ridge-line bouldering instead (easier for Zack, who has long legs, than for Lara, who has shorter legs). Had a few hours of peace at camp, but were kept awake all night by some of the most intense thunderstorms we've encountered yet. Constant lightning, sheets of rain, and rolling thunder kept us awake nearly all night. Fortunately, our tent held up, keeping us bone dry (well done, REI!). Oh, and we also had two encounters with two large snakes - yikes!

Day 29
Jerry Cabin to Hogback Ridge Shelter (15 miles)

Dreary-eyed, we emerged from our sleeping bags around 9:00 and decided to give ourselves a rest-filled morning at camp. Coffee and homemade breakfast breads definitely helped. Comparatively easy terrain made for a pleasant day of hiking, and we were able to camp with our friends Avo and H.I.P. for the third consecutive night in a row. Many thru-hikers have temporarily left the trail to attend Trail Days in Damascus, VA, so the trail has been quiet.

Day 30
Hogback Ridge Shelter to No Business Knob Shelter (20.7 miles(!!))

Our biggest day yet, and a beautiful one to boot. Conquered Big Bald, which, true it's name, was big...and bald. Outstanding views, and very few bothersome bugs at the top. Started feeling mentally drained around mile 15, but were able to push through thanks to a 10 minute 'focus break' and some nice chatter with H.I.P. during the last 2 or 3 miles. Spent the night at No Business Knob where we met Cimarron, an 88-year old solo thru-hiker. He's hiking the trail for the second time, about 50 years after the first. What an inspiration.

That's all for now!

Zack (and Lara)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hello from Hot Springs, NC! It hasn't been too long since we wrote last, which makes it easier for us to give a full update. Our travels continue to go well, though this week, the weather threw us for a loop. Tomorrow we'll take our first full "zero" day of the trip so far, and we think it's about time!

Here's what's happened to us since we left the town of Gatlinburg:

Day 21
Newfound Gap (Gatlinburg, TN) to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter (15.6 miles)

After a big breakfast of pancakes and a veggie omlette, we headed out of Gatlinburg. Many of our trail friends stayed behind to take another "zero" day there because the weather report looked dismal for the day - big rain and dropping temps coming in the afternoon. We decided we were ready to get back into the woods, and we'd brave the elements. We felt great for the first 10 miles, and we got some amazing views and vistas, and then we - over-confidently - decided to push on for an additional 5 miles to the next shelter. This was a very silly thing to do. The rain came down immediately, and we were soaked to the core the whole way. It barely let up, so we were running, trying to get to shelter as fast as we could. I've never been so glad to see a shelter, with a fire in the fire place to boot! It was packed with day hikers and a few fellow thru-hikers. At 6,000 feet, the temps continued to drop, and the rain continued to pour until...

Day 22
Tri-Corner Knob Shelter to Davenport Gap Shelter (14.8 miles)

...We woke up to SNOW! We couldn't believe it! Snow in May! The beginning of the day's hike was a bit miserable, as we just wanted to get warm. Thankfully, much of the hiking was downhill, out of the high-elevation areas where the temps were so low. We camped at Davenport Gap Shelter, only one mile from the exit of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with lots of our thru-hiking friends and enjoyed a much warmer night than the night before.

Day 23
Davenport Gap Shelter to Groundhog Creek Shelter (10.5 miles)

In the morning we exited the Smokies. It was a great visit, and we saw some incredible scenery. We got a few days of resupply food, enough to get us to Hot Springs, from Standing Bear Hiker Hostel, a small farm located 0.1 miles from the trail. We got to our campsite early, and met some new thru-hiker and section-hiker friends. It was a great day of hiking and just hanging out.

Day 24
Groundhog Creek Shelter to Walnut Mountain Shelter (13.1 miles)

We headed out of camp on time today! (It had been a while since we'd done that.) We were feeling great on the uphills, even in the cold morning rain, which thankfully cleared by the time we reached Max Patch. What a sight! We had a full 360-degree view of the surrounding forests and fields. (Weird story behind Max Patch: The forest service maintains the bald with lawnmowers and controlled burns so that it remains "bald.") The rest of the day was easy hiking to Walnut Mountain Shelter. Our pace has gotten faster, so when we get an on-time departure in the morning, we get into camp really early. It's nice to have that afternoon downtime to read and relax.

Day 25
Walnut Mountain Shelter to Hot Springs, NC (13.1 miles)

We headed out of camp even earlier this morning, hoping to get to the town of Hot Springs before 2:00. What a great day to hike! Some uphills were mixed into the route this morning, but it was mostly smooth downhills into town. We ended up getting into Hot Springs around noon. It's a funny feeling to follow the white blazes (the AT trail markers) and see them run straight through a town, as they do in Hot Springs. There will be more of that sort of thing as we get up north, but this is our first real instance of the trail crossing right through the heart of a town. We're staying at The Sunnybank Inn, an enormous and beautiful Victorian house built in 1840 (the oldest building in town) which has been converted into a hiker hostel. (No dirty boots allowed inside!) There are communal, vegetarian meals - which we have heard great things about from all former thru-hikers - and porches that wrap around the house. We're looking forward to our half-day in town today, and our first full "zero" day tomorrow. So much time without walking - what will we do?! (The answer is - eat.)

So, as we near our first month as trail folk, we are feeling very blessed and happy to have been safe, healthy and enjoying every minute of it all (which is an especially good thing since we've still got over 1,900 miles to go). We're in good spirits and loving our thru-hiking companions and each day's adventures.

That's all for now!

Lara (and Zack), aka "Veggie Squared"

Monday, May 2, 2011

Good afternoon from Gatlinburg, TN "The Gateway to the Smokies!" If you've never been to Gatlinburg (or Cherokee, or Pigeon Forge), you're really missing out on a true piece of Americana. Today is our twentieth day on the trail, and fourth day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After seeing so much nature on foot, it's been weird remembering that most Americans experience nature in their cars. The Smokies get 9 million visitors a year, most of which never (or very rarely) leave their vehicles. I think that's a shame. Nevertheless, we're enjoying a "near-o" day in this little Tennessee version of Vegas. With over 100 motels, 70 restaurants, and dozens of side-show attractions (so far we've counted eight different "Old-Timey Photo" shops), being in Gatlinburg is like being on another planet. Plus, they have a Shoney's! Jackpot! All joking aside, the folks here are hospitable and welcoming to thru-hikers, even when we're smelly. We thank them for that.

A lot has happened since we last posted. It's hard to think we've already hiked more than 200 miles--close to 10% of the AT. After weeks without trail names, we think we've settled on Veggie (Lara) and Square (Zack).We've met some fantastic people and have started to settle into a group of sorts. The trail attracts people from all walks of life, and it's been a real pleasure getting to know some of them. We're already dreading the day when we get separated due to injury, vacation, or pace. One fellow hiker, Bluefoot, has described this as "the most non-linear linear experience of our lives." Everyone hiking their own hike, intersecting now and then, but all still heading north.

Here's the day-by-day:

Day 8
Hiawassee to Muskrat Creek Shelter (12 miles)

Severe thunderstorms delayed our departure from Hiawassee until late morning. Thankfully, the shuttle driver was willing to wait with us at the Budget Inn until the rain cleared. The hike out of Georgia and into North Carolina was brutal--12 miles nearly entirely uphill. On days like this both Lara and I are particularly grateful to have a hiking partner. Mid-afternoon we unceremoniously crossed into NC, stopping instead at an iconic, gnarled tree a few hundred yards later for a photo-op. Our joy was short-lived as the NC side of the AT gave us a big ol' butt whoppin' with two extremely steep climbs, sin switchbacks. When we finally made it to the Muskrat Creek Shelter, heavy-footed, we quickly ate a mashed-potato dinner, hung our bear bag, and crashed.

Day 9
Muskrat Creek Shelter to Carter Gap Shelter (12.5 miles)

The hiker's prayer, according to our friend Buzz Saw: "Lord, if you pick'em up, I'll put'em down." In a way, our prayers were answered today as we found ourselves rewarded with an easy, gradual day 9. The highlight of the day was lunch at the summit of Standing Indian Mountain.

Day 10
Carter Gap Shelter to Rock Gap Shelter (12 miles)

Day 10, our second big milestone after the 50-mile mark. It's safe to say we're really starting to feel like thru-hikers. Our appetites are kicking in! Early this morning we weathered some heavy rain and lightning, which we observed from inside our tent. (Lara points out that we spend nearly 16 hours a day in that tiny space. Good thing we aren't claustrophobic!). After a hand-over-hand climb to the top of Albert Mountain, we lunched at the top of the observation tower with a new friend, Jackrabbit. Jackrabbit tests snowplows for a living. When was the last time you met someone with that job?

Day 11
Rock Gap Shelter to Wayah Shelter (15 miles)

Glorious, blue-sky day. We decided to bypass Franklin, NC and push on into the Nantahala wilderness. If I haven't mentioned it before, the forest service signs here resemble either the Rosetta Stone or a newspaper from the Flintstones. See here, then here. We received our first AND second real, bonafide bits of trail magic today. The first came from a sweet representative of the Nanatahala Trail Club who ran up to us as we emerged into a parking lot and exclaimed, "Happy Easter from the NTC!" We each received a bag of goodies containing candy, applesauce, and hard-boiled eggs--everything a thru-hiker could ever want. We devoured our packs on top of Silar Bald, which offered spectacular views of the surrounding region. Later in the day we began to hear whisperings of beer and hot dogs atop Wayah Bald, our final destination for the day. Sure enough, Topper, an '05 thru-hiker, and his friends were waiting next to the stone observation tower there with a tent full of goods, including fresh fruit, cold soda and SmartDogs, which are vegetarian-friendly franks. So thoughtful.

Day 12
Wayah Shelter to Wesser Bald Shelter (10.5 miles)

Easy day today up and over Wesser Bald. Had a great chat with Journey, a second-time thru-hiker, whose partner will be teaching at Whitman next year. We very much enjoyed this small-world moment and gave her our authoritative perspective on Walla Walla.

Day 13
Wesser Bald Shelter to Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) (6 miles)

Sad news today entering NOC: Buzz Saw and Gramps, two of our favorite hikers, have left the trail. As they were one step ahead of us, we weren't given the opportunity to say goodbye or discuss their reasons for stopping their hike. We knew going into this that most hikers attempting to get to Maine drop out before they get there, but Buzz and Gramps' departure really brought this statistic home.

Spent the day today at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a hub for river rafting companies situated right next to the river (and right on the AT). We showered, shopped, and ate three hefty meals here, including the "best pizza on the trail" at the River's End Restaurant. Best pizza we've had thus far anyways. Will need to wait until completion to release a final verdict.

Day 14
NOC to Sassafrass Gap Shelter (7 miles)

Two weeks on the trail. After a mere 18 hours in civilization, and a sweltering night in the NOC bunks, we were eager to get back on the trail, where our options for regulating temperature are much greater. The climb out of the NOC is a doozie, but we made it to Sassafrass Gap by 1:00. Met up with Journey there and decided to spend our first night in a shelter, which was a beautifully crafted, double-decker with a skylight and no mice.

Day 15
Sassafrass Gap Shelter to Cable Gap Shelter

Awful storm tonight, that we--thankfully--survived unscathed. In retrospect, we were probably safer in the mountains than anywhere else it the Southeast. Pretty scary stuff.

Day 16
Cable Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Shelter

Another taste of society as we "near-oed" in Fontana Resort. Stayed the night at the Fontana Dam shelter, affectionately known as the 'Fonatana Hilton' due to its size and proximity to real bathrooms. We were treated to luxuries all day--trail magic from Chimp's parents out of Knoxville, a mail drop from mom and dad, and a warm, happy evening with about 28 other hikers preparing to venture into the Smokies. Our time at Fontana felt a lot like a frat mixer. Only differences: we just met these people a week ago, and no one threw up. My kind of party.

Day 17
Fontana Dam Shelter to Russell Field Shelter

Our first day in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The trail in this section crosses over the Fontana Dam (and no, it's not the dam from The Fugitive--we asked). Friends and family may recall that our last camping trip in the Smokies was 4 days of rain, followed by my car breaking down (but we still had fun!). Today we had uncharacteristically blue skies, great temps, and amazing views. Met a very nice trail-runner named Carl who works the section around Fontana from February-May. He's in his late sixties and his ninth season as a trail-runner. Nice to know these guys are around.

Day 18
Russell Field Shelter to Silar Bald Shelter

Planned a short day today, but decided to push on and meet our friends at Silar's Bald. Many pushed on to catch a sunrise at Clingman's Dome, but we didn't have the 4:00 AM departure in us.

Day 19
Silar Bald Shelter to Mt. Collins Shelter

Slept in a bit this morning but eventually emerged to a blustery sunrise atop Silar's Bald (the one in the Smokies, not the one in the Nantahala. They seem to have run out of titles when naming the mountains around here. I think we've seen 3 different Sassafrass Gaps at this point). Summitted Clingman's Dome today, which at 6,643 ft. is the highest point on the Appalachian Trial. The view was hazy, but hey, we're in the Smokies. Lots of tourists. Cell phone reception in one spot. Just enough to get a text from dad that said "I bet you guys look good." For your information, we looked like we hadn't showered in 5 days.

Day 20
Mt. Collins Shelter to Newfound Gap/Gatlinburg, TN

Out of the shelter at 7:00 this morning to catch a ride into Gatlinburg. Got our first hitch in the parking lot--a fellow from upstate NY, his father, and his uncle heading back to town after a week of familial bonding in the Smokies. Neither of us likes asking for rides much, but you do what you gotta do.

Missing you all. Feel free to write us, via post or email, and let us know what you're up to on the other side of life.

Zack (and Lara)